Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, based on a book by Ron Stallworth.
John David Washington
Robert John Burke
Michael Joseph Buscemi
Runtime: 135 mins.
Australian release date: 16 August 2018
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Sydney, on 16 August 2018.
Set in the ‘70s, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman opens with the famous scene from Gone With The Wind where Scarlett wanders through the dead and dying in Atlanta and, later on in Lee’s film, there are excerpts from Birth of A Nation. Both of these films have become notorious for their depictions of US race relations and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes and, indeed, Lee maintains that the latter revitalized the Ku Klux Klan, which was dormant at the time BOAN was released. Also included in BlacKkKlansman’s opening minutes is mock newsreel footage of a well-fed white supremist, Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin in great form), ranting racist myths down the barrel of the lens, repeatedly being prompted by a female voice off-camera. At this point you know already that you’re in for ‘a Spike Lee Joint’ that sees the director back in excellent form. Lee can be a bit hit-and-miss and his last few titles haven’t had a cinema release in Australia (eg. Red Hook Summer, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, Chi-Raq) but this time he most assuredly hits the bullseye.
It’s hard to believe that BlacKkKlansman is a true story, yet Lee has added a lot of light to its shade. He states that, "It's humour. Not comedy," but however it's labelled it makes the plot more accessible. This is not a diatribe about Black Lives Matter but a blaxploitation-style entertainment. When we first meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son), an afro-sporting young dude, he’s being interviewed by members of the Colorado Springs police, not because he’s committed a crime but because he wants to be the first black cop in the force. Once accepted, he manages to convince his superiors that he can go undercover and he’s sent to gauge the militancy of the local Black Power movement at a lecture given by the activist Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). At the meeting he meets an Angela Davis look-a-like, Patrice (Laura Harrier), the President of the Black Student Union at her college, and they strike up a relationship. Stallworth then decides to infiltrate the KKK, firstly by phone and then, when required to meet them face-to-face, by recruiting a fellow officer, Philip ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to become his stand-in. There’s a very funny scene where we see Ron teaching Flip the difference in tenor between the voice of a black man and a white man, as it is an important factor in convincing the white racists that the man on the phone is indeed the white dude who turns up.
There are many disturbing scenes in BlacKkKlansman, particularly within the confines of the police department where a racist fellow officer treats Stallworth with disdain, and in the KKK’s meeting rooms, where vile racist rhetoric is spewed forth, rhetoric which Flip has to be seen to embrace. The phone conversations which take place between Stallworth and Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace), simultaneously manage to be both confronting and funny, to Lee’s sly credit. There is also some relief from the unrelenting racism in scenes where Ron tries to woo Patrice away from talking politics, particularly a joyous extended dance scene - in which Lee masterfully encapsulates the vibrancy of youth and the spirit of the times, the sheer ‘sexiness’ of being young, black and proud - to the strains of the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s Too Late to Turn Back Now. It makes you want to get up and join in.
During filming the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, made headlines around the world and the real David Duke is seen addressing people at the event in an epilogue to BlacKkKlansman, plus footage of the terrorist who killed Heather Heyer driving his car into the crowd. The current President of the USA, Donald J. Trump, is then seen defending the racists, claiming that there were ‘good’ people on both sides. It just goes to show that the USA was, and is, enveloped in a cloud of “some fo’sure real shit” and BlacKkKlansman shows how, regrettably, nothing has really changed since the ‘70s.